Program works to find housing for veterans who are parents

| Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, 8:45 p.m.

Tracey Roberson, an Army Reserve veteran, and her two children were homeless and preparing to move into an affordable, but seedy area in the North Side in November, she said.

After being laid off in 2011 from her job at Gateway Health Plan authorizing medical services and equipment for people on Medicare and Medicaid, Roberson has struggled as a single mother to support herself and her children, a 7-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy, she said.

In November, she reached out to a South Side-based nonprofit, Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania, to ask about furniture, but she was surprised to discover that she qualified for its emergency housing in East Liberty.

“This has been all a blessing to me. It really has,” said Roberson, 44, a cashier at the new Shop 'N Save in the Hill District.

The number of homeless veterans declined nationally by 24 percent to 57,000 between 2010 and 2013 because of a 2009 federal initiative to end veteran homelessness by 2015, but the number of homeless veterans with children is increasing, experts said.

One reason is that more single women are serving in the military, and another is the nation's struggling economy.

The number of female veterans grew from 4 percent of all veterans in 1990 to 10 percent in 2013, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There isn't enough emergency and transitional housing to help them, said Michele Margittai, director of development and community relations at the Veterans Leadership Program.

Support agencies also are seeing more homeless veterans with families because a program created in 2011 — the Supportive Services for Veteran Families Program — better identifies them, said Vincent Kane, director of the VA's National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans in Philadelphia.

Through the SSVF program, Veterans Affairs awards grants to private nonprofits and consumer cooperatives to provide supportive services to very low-income veteran families to go from in transitional housing, for which government subsidies last up to 24 months, to permanent housing, he said.

“It's the first time it's allowed us to help the veterans and the family,” he said.

In 2011, $59 million in federal grants were awarded nationwide to groups assisting veterans. By 2013, the amount had risen to $300 million, Kane said. This year, $600 million is available.

In January 2013, 207 people in the Pittsburgh area, identified themselves as homeless veterans, down from 225 in 2011, according to HUD reports.

“Before SSVF, nobody was tracking how many (homeless) veterans had families,” Margittai said.

Preliminary data from the SSVF program, which sees the most female homeless and at-risk veterans, show that of 280 veterans' households in the Pittsburgh area serviced by SSVF between Oct. 1, 2012, and Sept. 30, there were 40 with children younger than 18.

The Veterans Leadership Program received a $1.8 million grant from SSVF to help veterans with housing this fiscal year.

The Veterans Leadership Program operates several housing programs for veterans, including Project Journey, which provides emergency housing in three apartments and a house, to homeless female veterans with children for up to 45 days before they are helped with securing permanent housing. SSVF and HUD grants will to help pay the rent for the first few months.

“We created (Project Journey) in September because there are just not enough resources for homeless women veterans. Or the resources there are completely overwhelmed, particularly with veterans with families,” Margittai said.

Increasing housing for veterans with children is crucial, especially in cases in which veterans have male children because some emergency shelters won't accept teen boys, said Margittai.

Veterans Leadership Program hopes to start a program similar to Project Journey for male veterans with children, he said.

While serving with the Pennsylvania National Guard on peacekeeping missions in Kosovo, Eric Jackson worked on teams that exhumed bodies from mass graves.

After he left the military in 2012, stress from a divorce and memories of death and explosions exacerbated his post-traumatic stress disorder. He found it difficult to keep a job, and at one point came close to being evicted from the Brentwood apartment he shares with his oldest child, now 11, a girl that he and his then-wife adopted from Kosovo.

“I used to have a lot of guilt and depression,” said Jackson, 45.

The Veterans Leadership Program used a federal Housing and Urban Development grant to pay his $550 monthly rent and connect him to support services. Jackson now pays 15 percent of his rent using his veterans benefits.

He holds a master's degree in social work and recently received his state license in the field, which will help him find employment.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.She can be reached at 412-380-5662or

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